Couple's oceanfront house on Bethany Beach is a home for all seasons

Every year, Washingtonians Frank Hurley and Catharine "Kit" Dorrier invite their friends to spend the holidays with them on the beach.
By Deborah K. Dietsch
Friday, December 17, 2010; 8:21 PM

Bethany Beach greets "The Big Chill" during the holiday season at the oceanfront vacation home of Frank Hurley and Catharine "Kit" Dorrier. Every year, the Washingtonians invite their friends, many of whom also own real estate at the Delaware resort, to prepare gourmet meals and make merry for a few days around Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

"This is a terrific place to cook and hang out. There's enough space for all of us," says Patsy Rankin, their neighbor in Washington and owner of Patsy's Restaurant at Bethany Beach, who has shared holiday feasts with the couple for more than two decades. On a November weekend at the couple's beach house, Rankin and her daughter Robin joined Kate and Len Dwojeski from the holiday "beach family" to reminisce about past celebrations.

It's easy to understand why the longtime friends, whose names are painted on wine glasses stored at the house, like gathering in the big, open rooms. In addition to being on the beach, the classic shingle-style dwelling with its white porch columns looks like it's right out of a Ralph Lauren advertisement. Water can be seen through windows in nearly every room, and flowing spaces bring a sense of the beach indoors.

Designed by Washington architect Jim Rill, the property recalls the shingled beach houses characteristic of New England. Cedar shakes, cottage-style windows, and porches in front and back create a feeling of historic authenticity. From the beach, the gambrel roofs framing the ends of the house rise from the sand dunes like twin mountain peaks.

"The inspiration is from the American summer home from the turn of the [last] century," Rill says. He cites the Addy Sea, a 1902 house-turned-hotel in Bethany, as one of his sources for the late Victorian look of his design.

Hurley and Dorrier selected the architect to design the beach house right after he had expanded their 1980s house in the District's Palisades neighborhood. That ambitious addition of a new kitchen, family room, second-level bedrooms and an office space in the attic gave them the confidence to hire Rill again.

"He knew our likes and dislikes," Dorrier says. "The second time around was much easier than the first." Some design elements are repeated in both houses, including sliding metal-framed glass partitions in the couple's home offices and marble salvaged from the Folger Library's rare-book room when it was remodeled covering a bathroom floor and a table.

The couple's decision to build a second home that could be used year-round came after years of renting properties on the Delaware shore. In 1998, when their kids were still teenagers, the couple bought a 1970s home in Bethany and asked Rill to perform an extreme makeover. "It was a nasty one-story bunker," recalls the architect, who demolished most of the structure except for the foundation and chimney.

Coastal regulations limited new building to the boundary of the existing house on the ocean side, but Rill was able to extend the front and top to enlarge the structure and take advantage of the views. "We didn't want the house to appear too tall, so we created gambrel roofs on both sides," he says. "They allowed us to gain square footage and make the second floor larger than the first." (Gambrel roofs are reminiscent of old-fashioned barn roofs.)

Years of youthful summering on Cape Cod, in Virginia Beach and on North Carolina's Outer Banks led Hurley and Dorrier to incorporate their favorite design elements from those vacation settings. "This is an amalgam of beach houses from our past," Hurley says. "One of the things we realized is that you don't want stuff that gets mildewed, so we finished the rooms in wood rather than drywall."

Low-maintenance heart pine and white-painted boards cover the walls and ceilings to suggest the interior of a ship. Durable Mexican tile pavers extend throughout the main level while wooden floors on the second level match the wainscoting and paneling in the bedrooms. Gracefully curving cutouts in the stair risers and built-in window seats and cabinets testify to a high level of craftsmanship on the part of Zink Construction, a Bethesda-based contractor.

Upstairs, five bedrooms and a workspace shared by Hurley and Dorrier are connected by a hall overlooking the two-story living space and its clerestory windows, which bring in light and beach vistas. The master bedroom and a guestroom extend under the gambrel roofs at the rear to private decks facing the ocean.

Bedrooms for the couple's three children and their friends are tucked into the front of the house and a bunk room in the home's lowest level provides more room for their pals. On the main floor, yet another bedroom and a media den can be used to host more overnight visitors.

From the top level of the house, the staircase continues upward to a space between the roof gables that is worth the climb. The deck opens to panoramic views of the beachfront and the town in every direction. "It's a great place to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July," Hurley notes.

The perch is reached by rolling a skylight to one side rather than by opening a door. Rill came up with this ingenious solution to avoid building a rooftop structure that would exceed building-height restrictions and compete with the chimney.

The couple's tradition of holiday beach parties started about 30 years ago when Hurley and Dorrier would go to Rehoboth with friends for New Year's Eve and continued when they built their house in Bethany.

"The end of the year is a transition time, and being at the beach gives you time to wind down and reflect," says Hurley, the chairman and chief scientific officer of RRD International, a Rockville-based health-care product development company. "We like walking on the beach, watching the sunsets and enjoying the holiday with our family and friends," adds Dorrier, a technical consultant at the company.

Now their year-end celebrations last four days and are planned weeks in advance, down to the room and meal assignments. Hurley and Dorrier prepare their favorite recipes for two of the dinners and relegate the rest of the cooking to guests.

Arranged on three levels, the house offers plenty of entertaining space for the 20 to 30 guests who regularly attend the annual Thanksgiving and New Year's parties. The couple's three children, now in their 20s, sometimes join the festivities but more often celebrate Christmas with their parents in Washington or on visits to relatives.

No matter what size the party, the kitchen at the front of the house - complete with its two dishwashers, double sinks and Wolf grill - is central to the operation. "We spend most our time around this island," says Rankin, pointing to the central preparation area. "Food is spread out everywhere."

In colder weather, visitors curl up in the armchairs and sofas in front of the stone fireplace in the living area where a bookcase is stuffed with paperback beach reads. All the rooms on the main level flow together, so no group is cut off from the activity, even from the cooks in the kitchen. Tables are pushed together in the dining nook to accommodate large crowds and then moved aside for dancing. "We've had 38 people sitting down for dinner," Hurley says.

Back at their house in Palisades, Hurley and Dorrier recently prepared their list of guests and meal responsibilities for the upcoming New Year's celebration. "We are expecting about 25 from December 29 through January 2," Dorrier says. "Some who will come for dinners during that time have their own houses in the area, but there will 12 or so in our house."

She and Hurley are planning to grill a surf and turf and a dessert of chocolate fondue with fruit and lemon cake for dipping. Rill, who has attended a few of the beach parties, says good food may be more important than good design to the beach-going couple and their friends. "Everyone tries to outdo the next guy with gourmet dishes," he recalls. "At the end of night, everyone ends up on the porch looking at the stars."

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